Veteran British journalist David Frost has died at the age of 74 from a heart attack. Frost is widely remembered as the journalist who in 1977 conducted the historic interviews with President Richard Nixon. It’s instructive to revisit the Frost/Nixon interviews as they give us rich insight into the reigning ethos that influences decision-makers in Washington today. In an effort to justify the crimes exposed in the Watergate Scandal, Nixon memorably said “when the president does it that means that it is not illegal.” It’s worth noting that Nixon wasn’t articulating some new, exotic principle. Rather he was reiterating a long-standing doctrine of American imperialism, only in more brazen terms. That doctrine, simply put, is that the president is above the law. Indeed, Watergate was one of Nixon’s lesser crimes. Another illegality that defined the Nixon presidency was the overthrow of Chile’s democratically elected government headed by Salvador Allende and the installation of the tyrannical regime of Augusto Pinochet. Central to this US-organized military takeover was an effort to impose conditions that would “make [Chile’s] economy scream,” to borrow the Nixon administration’s phrase. This is to say nothing of the thousands of tortured, murdered, and “disappeared” Chileans made to join the economy in its anguished screams.
Coupled with Nixon’s crimes in Latin America was an intensification of the aggressive war in Indochina–in particular the terror bombing of Cambodia–and his participation in the illegal domestic surveillance program known as COINTELPRO, a grievous assault on first amendment rights of assembly. None of these much more egregious crimes elicited the same accusations of criminality in high places as those which characterized the Watergate Scandal. Reviewing how these crimes have been made invisible throughout history, one can’t help but consider it a tribute to this culture of impunity that Nixon’s doctrine–“when the president does it that means that it is not illegal”–endures in more virulent form within today’s policy circles. President Obama is inching closer to war with Syria after reports of Syrian president Bashar Assad allegedly using sarin gas against civilians in the country’s ongoing civil war. “We want the Assad regime to understand that by using chemical weapons on a large-scale against its own people, against women, against infants, against children, that you are not only breaking international norms and standards of decency,” Obama piously stated in a recent interview.
This statement is coming from the same leader who carries out extrajudicial assassinations via drones on a regular basis, killing hundreds of innocent civilians, including between 168 and 200 children in Pakistan, all in direct violation of the Geneva Conventions and the UN Charter. Yet the president is morally undeterred in condemning the atrocities of official enemies. In a public announcement of the war-plan in the White House rose garden he informed the nation that even though he was making the decision to get Congressional approval, he had the authority to go to war without the stamp of the legislative branch, pure nonsense. The president has a right to bomb Syria “no matter what Congress does,” asserted Secretary of State John Kerry. It may puzzle some why the president would seek approval from a parliamentary body he has already declared beforehand as powerless. The answer to this puzzle can be traced back to the Nixon doctrine. Even if a president makes gestures demonstrating respect for law it’s much more important to assert the broader ideology that the law simply does not apply to imperial warlords, that “it’s not illegal when the president does it.” President Obama must project the image of a “wolf” that “doesn’t need to cry wolf”, of an “American eagle” that stands for “restrained moral power—power that is absolutely lethal and purposeful when it is unleashed . . .” These are excerpts from the erotic musings of Time magazine’s liberal columnist Joe Klein, an enterprising analyst who showcased his capacity for “restrained moral power” when he soothed the consciences of drone war opponents by reminding them that what really matters is “whose four-year olds are being killed.” Somehow this commentary escaped the corporate media’s obsession with “moral monstrosities” that violate not only international norms but much more sacred “standard’s of decency.”
“But something must be done.” “Assad violated long-standing international norms prohibiting the use of chemical weapons.” “He didn’t just use chemical weapons against anybody. He used these odious weapons against his own people!” These are common arguments for military intervention and putting aside orientalist phrases like “his own people” they aren’t completely unpersuasive. But why not take this reasoning to its logical conclusion? If the United States–the ultra-violent, hyper-militarized, self-proclaimed “indispensable nation” of the world–has a right to bomb Syria should not lesser powers be entitled to do the same to us? Should not the Maliki government in Iraq be making “initial preparations” to bomb Washington for its use of white phosphorous on Iraqi civilians during the criminal siege of Fallujah, a siege whose effects continue to reverberate in the city’s general hospital in the form of horrific birth defects courtesy of the depleted uranium unleashed from US munitions? No sensible person would advocate this not only because of the transparent barbarism of this response but because such an act would be a flagrant violation of he UN Charter which restricts the use of military force to acts of self-defense, which can’t possibly be argued in the US case against Syria.
Even establishment publications have been forced to recognize the lawlessness that would lie behind a military attack on Syria. “So, unless the [United Nations] Security Council authorizes action, the United States and its participating allies would be in violation of international law in using military force against Syria,” affirmed David Kaye in Foreign Affairs magazine. “No international law supports a U.S. attack on Syria, even in the face of mass killing by internationally prohibited weapons.” Incidentally, the question of UN approval has been completely excised from the national conversation about bombing Syria, another sign of the resilience of the Nixon doctrine. Also excised from the national conversation are cogent, non-militaristic and, crucially, legal solutions to the ongoing crisis in Syria. Take for example the position of Amnesty International who advised that “the best way for the United States to signal its abhorrence for war crimes and crimes against humanity and to promote justice in Syria, would be to reaffirm its support for the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court.” Amnesty also advises that the US “increase support to neighboring countries where refugees are fleeing; offer resettlement and humanitarian admission programs and robustly fund the United Nations’ Syria Regional Response Plans.” Again, sensible alternatives to war but unmentionable because they are incompatible with the religiously mandated resort to violence which is “absolutely lethal and purposeful when it is unleashed . . .” Questions can also be raised about stopping US supply of weapons to the opposition or the refusal of the US to confront petromonarchs in Saudi Arabia who are undoubtedly funding a large share of the violence in Syria. Perhaps these questions would annoy president Obama just as he was “annoyed” by UK prime minister David Cameron’s “stumbles” when he committed the heresy of following the will of his domestic population by accepting the parliamentary vote against intervention in Syria when he should have gotten down on his knees and kissed the godfather’s ring.
Faced with this unambiguous record of US criminality and hypocrisy it only becomes more fascinating to contemplate what David Frost, had he not succumbed to a heart attack, would have asked Obama were he granted a final interview, an interview on a topic of much greater national import than a president bugging the offices of his Democratic rivals. Would he ask, as he asked Nixon, whether or not the president of the United States was invested with the authority to decide that an act was “in the best interest of the nation . . . and do something illegal.” One can only speculate but Obama’s answer would plausibly be identical to Nixon’s: “when the president does it that means that it is not illegal.” Prominent media organizations would also most likely rationalize the president’s response as yet another example of an “American eagle” exercising “moral restraint” in the service of national “credibility” but I doubt anyone would argue that such brazenness would fall within the bounds of generally accepted “standards of decency”.Sources: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-politics/wp/2013/08/28/obama-says-potential-u-s-strike-on-syria-would-send-strong-signal/ http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/139886/david-kaye/the-legal-consequences-of-illegal-wars http://www.democracynow.org/2013/9/3/david_frost_74_remembered_by_director http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/01/obama-strike-syria-congress-kerry http://www.amnestyusa.org/news/press-releases/military-strikes-in-syria-cannot-bring-justice http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/sep/01/obama-congress-syria-authorization